Taylor, Lipton & the Birth of Ceylon Tea

By Jane Pettigrew

Prior to the 1860s, Ceylon's main crop was coffee and no grower showed much interest in tea. Today, Sri Lanka (Ceylon's post-colonial name) is the world's largest exporter of tea. The two men most responsible for this transformation are James Taylor and Sir Thomas Lipton.

A young man by the name of James Taylor arrived in Ceylon in 1852 to work for one of the large coffee growers. After six weeks on the job, he was put in charge of an estate called Loolecondera that was then being cleared for coffee. The work was hard and Taylor did most of it himself - clearing the land, building roads, digging holes for the coffee bushes, and nurturing the crop. Keen to develop other crops to grow alongside coffee, he was put in charge of cultivating cinchona - the tree whose bark is used to produce quinine.

In 1866, the company Taylor worked for began thinking about growing tea and an employee was sent to India to learn the basics of its cultivation and manufacture. One year later, after a favorable report on his visit, the first tea seeds were given to Taylor for experimental planting. The original tea garden at Loolecondera covered just 19 acres. Amazingly enough, some of those original bushes are still producing tea today.

Taylor, who had picked up tea manufacturing expertise from Indian tea growers, began to experiment with different methods of processing the leaves. One of his neighbors at the time wrote, "The factory was in the bungalow. The leaf was rolled on tables on the veranda by hand, i.e. from wrist to elbow, while the firing was done in chulas or clay stoves over charcoal fires, with wire trays to hold the leaf."

Soon the fate of both Ceylon and tea changed forever. In 1869 a fungus struck all of the island's coffee trees and over the next few years wiped out the industry. Estate owners had to think carefully about what to grow instead and, like Taylor several years earlier, their first choice of an alternative was cinchona. But by concentrating so totally on the new crop, they produced too much, flooded the market, and therefore spoiled their own chances of making the venture profitable. Again, following Taylor's lead, they opted for tea instead. By this time, Taylor's bungalow factory was famous amongst the locals and other interested growers would often turn to him for advice.

Taylor's pioneering spirit and perseverance continued to serve him well. In 1872 he was busy organizing the construction of a much larger tea factory on the Loolecondera Estate. He wrote in March that year "I have a machine of my own invention being made in Kandy for rolling tea which I think will be successful." The first shipments of Ceylon tea had reached the London auctions in 1875. And one million packets of it were sold at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.

Rapid expansion of the Ceylon's tea industry in the 1870s and 80s brought a good deal of interest from the large British companies, which took over many of the small estates. Four estates were purchased by a grocer whose name is almost a synonym for tea: Thomas Lipton.

Son of poor Irish immigrants, Lipton grew up amidst the slums of Glasgow. He left school at the age of 10 to help support his family and in 1865 sailed to America to work as a manual laborer and later manage a successful New York grocery store. It was here that he learned all the tricks and techniques of advertising and salesmanship that he later used to great effect when selling groceries and tea back in England and Scotland.

He returned to Glasgow in 1871 and worked for a couple of years in the grocery shop run by his parents. By the age of 21, he had opened his own store, where he practised the retailing skills he had learned in America. His imaginative marketing and clever publicity stunts brought his new venture rapid success.

In 1890, already a millionaire, Lipton was in need of a holiday and booked a passage to Australia. On the way, he broke his journey in Ceylon. He had an interest in tea as a product to sell in his shops. Lipton did not trust middlemen, and wanted to explore the possibilities of growing tea and bringing it direct to Britain. He couldn't have picked a better time. Since the problems of the coffee blight, plantations in the island were going for a song. He bought four and could now fully control his company's tea's quality and price.

Tea was quite expensive in Britain at that time, and was selling at a higher price than most working-class families could easily afford. Lipton's plan was to reduce its cost by cutting out the numerous middlemen, and render it affordable for the average British shopper. His other novel idea was to begin packaging it. Instead of selling it loose from the chest, as was the custom at that time, Lipton packed his tea in brightly-colored, eye-catching packets bearing the slogan "Straight from the tea gardens to the tea pot."

Lipton's foray into tea was a huge success, and vastly increased his wealth. His 300 shops throughout England soon could not keep up with the growing demand for his inexpensive product, and so Lipton teas became available in other stores around Britain. The name of Lipton had migrated from a chain of grocery stores and became a trademark soon to be famous the world-over.

James Taylor's legacy, on the other hand, is best summed up in the words of John Field, High Commissioner for Great Britain in Sri Lanka. In 1992 he wrote, "It can be said of very few individuals that their labors have helped to shape the landscape of a country. But the beauty of the hill country as it now appears owes much to the inspiration of James Taylor, the man who introduced tea cultivation to Sri Lanka."